Jenny Watson’s lecture on the modernisation of the electoral administration system

In the latest Constitution Unit seminar, Jenny Watson, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, provided the audience with a very eloquent account of the challenges and opportunities presented by the imminent and future work towards electoral modernisation. Drawing upon the effective steps that have already been taken by the Labour administration and most recently the coalition government, she elaborated on the likely effects of the new legislation including the transition to Individual Electoral Registration and emphasised the imperative need for thefurther modernisation of the electoral administration system. The Electoral Commission has always played a vital role towards that direction through a number of proposals and recommendations aiming to improve the election process. But it is the need for comprehensive legislation that will create clarity and transparency and ensure that ‘confidence and the effectiveness of our system will be maintained’ as Watson noted. A major step was taken in 2013 with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act which replaced Household Electoral Registration (HER) with Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and introduced new close of poll arrangements. It is expected that the move to IER will improve the security of the registration process and increase registration mainly among younger voters, students and the mobile population. However, in an increasingly disenfranchised society, there is an urgent need to reform the electoral framework, making it more efficient and less complex. As Jenny Watson highlighted the Electoral Commission will be leading the way in order to find the best ways to modernise the system and ‘make it more reflective of the wider society’.

The 2014-2016 election cycle presents a particularly busy and challenging phase for the Electoral Commission as well as the electoral administrators on the ground, not only due to the number but mainly the nature of the forthcoming elections. This cycle which opens with the European Parliament and local elections in May this year and ends in 2016 with the elections for the devolved bodies, local authorities, the London Mayor and the second round of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections also includes two of the most significant electoral events in the UK; the high profile 2015 general election and the Scottish Independence referendum which Watson characterised as the ‘most constitutionally significant event for the century so far’. Though the significance of these various elections depends on wider political factors, the successful delivery of all elections is not a matter of compromise. Watson continuously emphasised throughout her lecture the need to ensure that all elections are delivered successfully so as ‘confidence and effectiveness’ in the system is not undermined. The passage of timely and comprehensive legislation allows for the proper planning and successful delivery of the polls. To this end, she highlighted that the Independence referendum legislation which was in place well in advance should provide the model to follow for all future elections.

The focus of her lecture however, was on the most significant imminent change of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The timetable for implementation was the topic of heated debate in Parliament with the government preferring that the transition be completed at the end of 2015. For Watson there are two strong arguments for early implementation. First, the system of online registration which is not only easy and quick to use but mainly, it appeals to young unregistered voters, which one of the sections of the population that the Electoral Commission mostly wishes to target. Second, an invaluable tool such as the data matching process is already in place. That is,the register is being matched against the data of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as well as local databases to confirm the identity of each elector. A test of that process, known as the ‘confirmation process’, which was run a year ago, showed that three quarters of those in the current register were automatically transferred onto the new register. And though there will be still a substantial number of voters (around 10m) who would not be registered, the data matching process provides election registration officers with the information and skills they need to identify the groups of people in their local area who are unregistered and develop plans to effectively target those groups.

The successful implementation of the transition to IER however, depends on a number of factors. Watson emphasised the important role that the Electoral Commission has to play in the process. Their work develops into three different levels. First, the Electoral Commission will monitor the process and collect data about the registers at various points including the general election of 2015 and evaluate the risks of an early transition. This will allow the identification of those electors who have not been confirmed or registered individually and those who at the end of the transition would be disenfranchised. She noted that this is of vital significance as it allows for the identification of variations at the local level and thus, a more effective planning and targeting especially in the light of the 2016 local elections. Most importantly, if the data analysis shows that too many voters would be disenfranchised then recommending early implementation would be highly unlikely. Second, the Electoral Commission will run a mass media campaign to raise public awareness. The main aim of the media campaign will be to encourage people to register complementing the work that election administrators will be doing on the ground. Finally, the Electoral Commission is building upon the findings of the data matching process in order to increase registration rates especially amongst those electors who are not likely to be automatically confirmed. To this end, Watson said that they are working with a range of partner organisations with good links togroups of people who are less likely to register, such as young adults and students, ethnic minority communities and mobile population, in order to pass a clear message to them about how to register.

One of the most interesting points of the lecture was her referenceto the practical issue of public engagement and participation and the implications of low turnout. While acknowledging the fact that encouraging political participation and increasing voting turnout are not areas of the Electoral Commission’s direct responsibility, Watson emphasised that the Electoral Commission cannot ‘sit on the sidelines’. Indeed, the Commission has an important twofold role to play; first, by supporting organisations who work towards these directions and second, by looking at the mechanics of the electoral system and their impact on turnout. The UK is in need of a more up-to-date and comprehensive strategy for bringing voting methods into the modern era. The role of the Electoral Commission should be to explore new areas and advise on the options for change. Online registration was a significant but limited step forward. The main aim should be to bring the electoral system into the modern world by giving people the opportunity to engage with it in the same way that they engage with everything else in their lives. To this end, Watson said that the Electoral Commissionplans to look at a variety of options including the electors’ ability to register to vote on the day of the election, touse any polling station in their constituency, the introduction of advance voting or even the ‘radical’ option of e-voting. Finding the right balance between security and accessibility of the system would be a major challenge. The Electoral Commission should not be working in isolation. This is an area where politicians and political parties should take responsibility and lead the debate about democratic participation. Addressing the issue of low turnout and enfranchising the younger generation requires political will and consensus. The Electoral Commission can lead the way; it is up to politicians and political parties to rise to the occasion.

Watch the video of Jenny Watson’s talk


A Code of Constitutional Standards

The Constitution Unit of University College London is today publishing a report which sets out a code of constitutional standards based on the reports of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. Since 2001 the Committee has made many recommendations in its reports, and the goal of this report was to codify these recommendations in order to make the Committee’s analysis of the constitution more accessible. The report, by Robert Hazell, Dawn Oliver and myself, contains a code of 126 constitutional standards, each of which is relevant to the legislative process, and each of which has been extracted from the 149 reports of the Constitution Committee that were reviewed. The standards are organised into five sections: the rule of law; delegated powers, delegated legislation and Henry VIII clauses; the separation of powers; individual rights; and parliamentary procedure.

The Constitution Committee’s formal terms of reference were set by the House of Lords Liaison Committee when it was established in 2001 and have not changed since then: ‘to examine the constitutional implications of all public Bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution’. The Constitution Committee decided against drawing up a formalised code of constitutional norms in their first report to inform their bill scrutiny, instead the Committee adopted a pragmatic approach. The Committee identifies the norms that are relevant to each particular bill or inquiry in question. This flexible approach has a number of advantages, but one disadvantage is that the Committee’s conception of the normative foundations of the constitution is not easily accessible.

The first aim of the code in this report is to make the normative foundations of the Committee’s work more accessible. As part of their work, the Committee has made choices about what the constitution means in the context of the legislative process. It is these choices that the code seeks to highlight. It is important to note that the Committee advanced many of the cited standards in relation to particular bills, and did not put them forward as generalised standards. There is little doubt that if the Committee were to advance its own code of constitutional standards, it would look different to the code within this report. Nevertheless, the code does represent an accurate summary of the constitutional norms that the Committee has sought to uphold in its work since it was established in 2001.

In terms of the content of the code, it is noteworthy that many of the standards appear to be derived from the principles that underpin the parliamentary process. For example, standards that seek to regulate the use of fast-track legislation are not just general principles of good governance, nor are they are based on a particular constitutional principle, but rather they are derived from the normative foundations of the parliamentary process itself. Such standards serve to protect the integrity of the parliamentary process. This focus on parliamentary norms demonstrates the value of giving a parliamentary committee the task of assessing the constitutional implications of government bills. It has enabled the Committee to articulate the normative implications of the principles that form the foundations of the parliamentary process.

The second aim of the code is to provide a resource for those involved in the legislative process. It is widely recognised that one of the disadvantages of the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution is that it is not easily accessible, and within Parliament the task of pointing out the constitutional implications of bills often falls to constitutional experts, particularly in the Lords, and the relevant committees. If the norms of the constitution were more readily accessible, it would be reasonable to expect more parliamentarians to engage with them during the legislative process. By publishing this code, it is hoped that parliamentarians, and others involved in the law-making process will make use of the standards within it during their scrutiny. The code might also be used by the Constitution Committee to develop its own code of legislative or constitutional standards.

The third aim is to contribute to the debate on the value of legislative standards within the legislative process in Westminster. In an earlier blog post, I put forward a critique of the code of legislative standards developed by the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in their report titled ‘Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation’. In that post, I argued that although their code would represent a significant step forward, I thought it did not go far enough. Since that post, the Government has issued its response to the PCRC’s report. The Government could not be clearer – it does not think that a code of legislative standards is a good idea (paras 12-15). It suggests that the Cabinet Guide to Making Legislation is all that is needed for parliamentarians to judge the standard of the Government’s approach. Further, the Government argued that the PCRC’s code would risk encouraging a ‘box-ticking mentality’, and they point out that the code does not provide the ‘degree of objectivity it envisages.’ The latter point is surprising because the PCRC’s code makes every effort to be as ‘neutral’ as possible.

The Government appears to have misinterpreted the rationale for a code of soft law standards. The idea is to stimulate parliamentary debate on aspects of bills to which the standards relate, rather than to introduce an objective box-ticking exercise. The presence of parliamentary sovereignty and the absence of a codified constitution are sometimes taken to mean that Government and Parliament legislate into a normative vacuum. That somehow parliamentary sovereignty means that the government does not have to justify why a bill seeks to depart from the existing norms of the constitution. That idea, as Murray Hunt has recently argued in Parliament and the Law, is antithetical to any meaningful idea of constitutionalism. A code of constitutional standards is designed to challenge the myth of the normative vacuum and to raise the standard of justification within the legislative process, but without legally limiting Parliament’s legislative capacity. In this sense a code of soft law standards does not represent a threat to the political nature of the legislative process, as the code would always the subject of debate, and could be changed by purely political means. Soft law constitutional standards developed within Parliament might even find support from political constitutionalists, because they serve to enhance the quality of parliamentary debate by focusing the minds of parliamentarians on the value of the political process and the norms that form its basic architecture. Even if the standards are prescriptive, this does not mean that they cannot be departed from. The value of a code of soft law standards does not depend on them being complied with all of the time, instead it depends on then being used as the basis for debate and justification within the legislative process.

There seems to be little to lose and everything to gain from making more use of soft law codes of standards in Westminster. As this code demonstrates, committees within Parliament are already articulating the normative standards that are vital to the integrity of the parliamentary process. The challenge is to maximise the benefits of this work by making those standards as accessible and as influential as possible. It is hoped that this code makes a small contribution to this aim.

Directly Querying the Constitute Data

Thank you to all who attended my seminar today.  As promised, I am going to provide the code that I used to query the data underlying the Constitute site.

To start, you will need to know how to write a SPARQL query.  There are good resources online to teach you how to write such queries (see here or here).  Once you know a bit about writing SPARQL queries, you can test out your skills on the data underlying the Constitute site.  Just copy and paste your queries here.  To get you started, here are the two queries that I used in my seminar:

Query 1:

PREFIX ontology:<>
PREFIX rdfs:<>
SELECT ?const ?country ?year
?const ontology:isConstitutionOf ?country .
?const ontology:yearEnacted ?year .

Query 2:

PREFIX ontology:<>
PREFIX rdfs:<>
SELECT ?const ?country ?year ?region ?sectionType ?sectionText ?childType ?childText
?const ontology:isConstitutionOf ?country .
?const ontology:yearEnacted ?year .
?section ontology:isSectionOf ?const .
?country ontology:isInGroup ?region .
?section ontology:hasTopic ontology:env .
?section ontology:rowType ?sectionType .
OPTIONAL {?section ontology:text ?sectionText}
OPTIONAL {?childSection ontology:parent ?section . ?childSection ontology:text ?childText}
OPTIONAL {?childSection ontology:parent ?section . ?childSection ontology:rowType ?childType}

Notice the “topic” line in the second query (?section ontology:hasTopic ontology:env .).  The env part of that line is the tag that we use to indicate provisions that deal with “Protection of environment”.  You can explore the list of topics included on Constitute and their associated tags here.

The next step is to apply your querying knowledge using the SPARQL package in R.  I will demonstrate how this is done by walking you through the creation of the Word Cloud that I discussed during my seminar (the code for the histogram is easier to understand and is below).  First, query the SPARQL endpoint using R:

#Opens the Relevant Libraries
#Defines URL for Endpoint
endpoint <- ""
#Defines the Query
query <- "PREFIX ontology:<>
PREFIX rdfs:<>
SELECT ?const ?country ?year ?region ?sectionType ?sectionText ?childType ?childText
?const ontology:isConstitutionOf ?country .
?const ontology:yearEnacted ?year .
?section ontology:isSectionOf ?const .
?country ontology:isInGroup ?region .
?section ontology:hasTopic ontology:env .
?section ontology:rowType ?sectionType .
OPTIONAL {?section ontology:text ?sectionText}
OPTIONAL {?childSection ontology:parent ?section . ?childSection ontology:text ?childText}
OPTIONAL {?childSection ontology:parent ?section . ?childSection ontology:rowType ?childType}

#Queries the endpoint
sparql <- SPARQL(endpoint,query,ns=c('ontology','<>','const','<>'))

You now have a data table with the relevant textual data available to you in R under sparql$results.  The second step is to organize that data into a corpus using the text mining package (tm, for short).  Ultimately, I am only interested in rows in the data table that have text (i.e. the sectoinText and childText columns are not empty) and that are from constitutions written in the Americas or Africa, so I will filter the data along these lines in this step of the process.  Here is the code:

#Opens the Relevant Libraries

#Filters Out Correct Regions
data.Africa <- subset(sparql$results,sparql$results$region=="const:ontology/Africa")
data.Americas <- subset(sparql$results,sparql$results$region=="const:ontology/Americas")

#Extracts Section Text from Results and Removes Missing Values
sText.Africa <- subset(data.Africa,data.Africa$sectionText!='NA')
sText.Africa <- subset(sText.Africa$sectionText,sText.Africa$sectionType=="const:ontology/body")
sText.Americas <- subset(data.Americas,data.Americas$sectionText!='NA')
sText.Americas <- subset(sText.Americas$sectionText,sText.Americas$sectionType=="const:ontology/body")

#Extracts Child Section Text from Results and Removes Missing Values
cText.Africa <- subset(data.Africa,data.Africa$childText!='NA')
cText.Africa <- subset(cText.Africa$childText,cText.Africa$childType=="const:ontology/body")
cText.Americas <- subset(data.Americas,data.Americas$childText!='NA')
cText.Americas <- subset(cText.Americas$childText,cText.Americas$childType=="const:ontology/body")

#Appends Parent and Child Text Together
Text.Africa <- data.frame(c(sText.Africa,cText.Africa))
Text.Americas <- data.frame(c(sText.Americas,cText.Americas))

#Converts Data Frames to Corpora
corpus.Africa <- Corpus(VectorSource(Text.Africa))
corpus.Americas <- Corpus(VectorSource(Text.Americas))

Now that I have organized the relevant text into corpora, I need to clean those corpora by removing stop words (e.g. a, an and the), punctuation and numbers and stemming words.  This is standard practice before analyzing text to prevent “the” from being the largest word in my word cloud and to make sure that “right” and “rights” are not counted separately.  The tm package has all the tools to perform this cleaning.  Here is the code:

#Makes All Characters Lower-Case
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,tolower)
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,tolower)

#Removes Punctuation
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,removePunctuation)
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,removePunctuation)

#Removes Numbers
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,removeNumbers)
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,removeNumbers)

#Removes Stopwords
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,removeWords,stopwords('english'))
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,removeWords,stopwords('english'))

#Stems Words
dict.corpus.Africa <- corpus.Africa
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,stemDocument)
corpus.Africa <- tm_map(corpus.Africa,stemCompletion,dictionary=dict.corpus.Africa)
dict.corpus.Americas <- corpus.Americas
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,stemDocument)
corpus.Americas <- tm_map(corpus.Americas,stemCompletion,dictionary=dict.corpus.Americas)

The last step is to analyze the cleaned text.  I created a simple word cloud, but you could perform even more sophisticated text analysis techniques to the textual data on Constitute.  I used the wordcloud package to accomplish this task.  Here is the code I used to create the word clouds for my presentation:

#Opens the Relevant Libraries

#Creates a PNG Document for Saving
png(file="WC_env.png", height = 7.5, width = 14, units = "in", res=600, antialias = "cleartype")

#Sets Layout
layout(matrix(c(1:2), byrow = TRUE, ncol = 2), widths = c(1,1), heights = c(1,1), respect = TRUE)

#Sets Overall Options
par(oma = c(0,0,5,0))

#Selects Colors
pal <- brewer.pal(8,"Greys")
pal <- pal[-(1:3)]

#Word Cloud for the Americas

#Creates Title for Americas Word Cloud

#Word Cloud for Africa

#Creates Title for African Word Cloud

#Creates an Overall Title for the Figure
mtext("Constitutional Provisions on the Environment",outer=TRUE,cex=2,font=2,line=1.5)

#Closes the Plot

Note that the plotting commands above are complicated by the fact that I wanted to combine two word clouds into the same image.  Had I only wanted to create a single word cloud, say for Africa, and did not care much about the colors of the plot, the following commands would have sufficed:

#Opens the Relevant Libraries

#Word Cloud for Africa

Anyway, here is the resulting word cloud:


With the commands above, you should be able to replicate the word clouds from my seminar.  In addition, minor modifications to the commands above will allow you to describe the constitutional provisions on different topics or to compare the way that different regions address certain topics.  One could even perform more advanced analyses of these texts with the SPARQL queries outlined above.


#Opens the Relevant Libraries

#Defines URL for Endpoint
endpoint <- ""

#Defines the Query
query <- "PREFIX ontology:<>
PREFIX rdfs:<>
SELECT ?const ?country ?year
?const ontology:isConstitutionOf ?country .
?const ontology:yearEnacted ?year .

#Makes the Query
sparql <- SPARQL(endpoint,query,ns=c('ontology','<>','const','<>'))

#Subsets Data
data.year <- data.frame(subset(sparql$results,select=c("const","year")))

#Drops Duplicate Observations
data.year <- unique(data.year)

#Makes Year Numeric
year <- as.numeric(data.year$year)

#Creates PNG Document for Saving

#Selects Colors
pal <- brewer.pal(3,"Greys")
pal <- pal[-(1:2)]

#Histogram Command
hist(year, breaks=21, col = pal, border = pal, xlab = "Promulgation Year", ylab = "Number of Constitutions", ylim = c(0,60), xlim = c(1790,2010), main = "Constitutions on Constitute")

#Closes the Plot

And here it is:


Will Ministers want an EMO?

Whitehall has a new acronym – the EMO.  Not some exotic bird, but Extended Ministerial Offices, first announced by Francis Maude in July.  Last week Cabinet Office published guidelines fleshing out the details:

EMOs will have three categories of staff: civil servants in the traditional Private Office role, Special Advisers, and external appointees.  The main expansion is likely to be in the third category, and the Civil Service Commission have created a new exception to allow recruitment without competition of chosen individuals as temporary civil servants for up to five years.  The previous maximum was two years: the new exception will allow outsiders to be recruited for the whole of a Parliament.

Ministers who want an EMO will need first to agree the mix of staff and the budget with their Permanent Secretary, before seeking the approval of the Prime Minister.  The budget must come within the department’s overall allocation.  The main quality control will come from Cabinet Office and the PM’s Chief of Staff in scrutinising EMO proposals: the PM is unlikely to give this his personal attention.  A few Ministers may go up from two Special Advisers to three.  But the main test will lie with the external appointees: will they be additional cheerleaders, or serious policy experts?  No 10 will be alert to negative headlines (eg The Times 19 November) and may be tight in what they allow through.

There are two twists in the tail for Ministers who want an EMO.  The first is that at least one member of the EMO must focus on implementation, reporting to the Head of the Cabinet Office Implementation Unit. So there is a direct line reporting line from the EMO to the centre on whether the department is meeting its targets.  The second is that requests must include ‘specific proposals for strengthening the offices of junior Ministers … of a different party’.  Where no EMO is planned, junior ministers can put forward their own proposals.  This is primarily to strengthen the support for the dozen Lib Dem junior ministers scattered round Whitehall, who feel isolated and outgunned. But it will require courage for them to go it alone: they must discuss their proposals first with their Secretary of State, who may not want to give the Lib Dems additional firepower.

Will many Ministers want an EMO?  In the remainder of this Parliament that seems unlikely.  Maude will have to have one, to set an example; but only a handful of colleagues may follow.  Energetic Ministers like Gove have already found ways of recruiting additional advisers, and may not want to seek approval from the centre.  And outsiders may be reluctant to sign up for an 18 month passage when the ship is beginning to run out of steam and they may be paid off in 2015.  So the real test will be in the next Parliament.  In an interview with Civil Service World Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office  spokesman Jon Trickett said that he supported the government’s plans for EMOs [link -].  But that was off the cuff, in the margins of the Labour party conference; we don’t know Miliband’s views.   If we have another hung Parliament, the future of EMOs might depend not on Francis Maude, but on the Lib Dems carrying his idea into the next government if they hold the balance of power.

The Consequences of a “No” Vote: Scotland’s Choices as Seen from Canada

7th Novemeber 2013

In his recent Constitution Unit seminar, Jim Gallagher walked us through the impact of a win for the “no” side in the Scottish referendum. As the co-author of Scotland’s Choices with Iain McLean and Guy Lodge, Gallagher argues that a “no” vote is not necessarily a vote for the status quo. Instead such a result can represent the desire to stay within the UK, but continue further on the devolution path.

The question of further devolution is at the crux of Gallagher’s argument. He promotes the idea of a territorial constitution which allows for devolved powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland but does not create a separate devolved jurisdiction for England. This is one of the significant differences between a territorial and federal constitution; a federal system creates a national government that governs concurrently with sub-national or regional governments, of which there is one for every region, and powers are divided between the different orders of government. In contrast, a territorial constitution is fundamentally asymmetrical and does not require a sub-national government for each region. For the UK, Gallagher envisions a territorial constitution that links the Scots and the rest of the UK (rUK) in three types of union: a political union where the national parliament takes care of foreign affairs and other national level items; an economic union that maintains the common currency and the trade benefits of a single market; and a social union for the national social security programs that are better managed at the national level by the UK government to ensure a standard level of services across the country.

When devolving further powers to Scotland, Gallagher is firm on shifting some taxation powers from the national government to Scotland. This encourages accountability – if there is a more equal relationship between the money raised and spent by the Scottish government then there is a greater degree of budget responsibility. Currently Scotland receives a block grant from the UK government, which is determined by the Barnett formula and is transferred without any strings attached. If Scotland does vote “no,” then the Scotland Act 2012 will come into force in 2016 and bring in many of the Calman Commission’s recommendations that assign the Scottish Parliament more taxation and borrowing powers.

Gallagher’s triple union and territorial constitution negates the large-scale devolution of powers to Scotland that have been recommended under more radical devolution models (such as the devolution “max” and welfare nationalism models discussed in Scotland’s Choices). This is particularly true of the social union which relies on the presence of a strong, unifying social safety net with programs such as NHS, old age pensions, and unemployment insurance. With the UK government retaining control of social programs, it naturally follows that a number of taxation powers will remain in the hands of the national government rather than being devolved to Scotland to ensure proper funding for the social union. But, in order to balace Scottish revenue with expenditure, some tax points could be transferred. An example would be reducing the UK personal income tax rate in Scotland to allow more room for the Scottish Parliament to introduce its own personal income tax.

Gallagher’s presentation was of particular interest to me as a Canadian. Canada has been torn apart by numerous rounds of mega-constitutional politics that have tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitutional fold. Quebec nationalism entered the national discussion in the 1960s with the re-imagining of the French Canadian people as the Quebecois and the agenda has been subsequently driven by the Parti Quebecois and its federal counterpart, the Bloc Quebecois. Despite the fact that there have been two referendums on independence, the sovereigntist cause remains very much alive in Quebec and the PQ currently holds a minority government in Quebec.

The Canadian experience clearly shows that even if the Scottish people reject independence next year, the status quo will be over-turned: after the 1980 referendum, in a bid to get Quebec to sign onto the constitution, the federal government entered into a series of constitutional talks with the provinces and negotiated the Constitution Act, 1982. But having been betrayed during the infamous “Night of Long Knives,” Quebec refused to sign and subsequently there were two more unsuccessful rounds of constitutional talks. Despite these failures, bilateral agreements between the federal government and Quebec have created some asymmetry in the Canadian federation: Quebec can opt out of federal programs and receive compensation to run its own version of those programs, such as the provincial pension plan, and has its own tax collection agency. These concessions move Canada towards asymmetrical federalism although the asymmetry has gone nowhere near far enough for the Quebecois and those who support Charles Taylor’s concept of “deep diversity,” which embraces asymmetrical federalism to protect and promote the smaller nation within a larger multi-national state.

In the long-run, the Quebec government, whether headed by the PQ or the anti-separatist but still pro-Quebecois Liberals, has been successful at advancing its cause and regularly opposing the federal government to extract concessions for Quebec. Therefore, there is no reason not to expect that a “no” result in 2014 will eliminate the SNP’s press for independence or at least further concessions in Scotland – especially if more devolution beyond the Scotland Act 2012 fails to occur in response to continued demands. The case of Quebec demonstrates that opposition to the central government can drive the separatist party’s policy agenda for decades after a referendum.

Gallagher’s presentation proves that regardless of the referendum result the status quo cannot be maintained. Since the current outcome looks to be a win for the “no” side, it is important that the UK as a whole considers what the consequences are for the union if Scotland votes to remain. There are many facets of the relationship between Scotland and rUK that must be unpacked to determine how further devolution – i.e. beyond the Scotland Act 2012 – might unfold.
To watch the seminar presentation by Jim Gallagher click here

Better Government: Gus O’Donnell answers back

29th October 2013

(Posted on behalf of Gus O’Donnell)

Six months ago i gave my inaugural lecture as a UCL visiting professor which has just appeared as  an article for Political Quarterly. My aim was to present some ideas for better government derived from my experience as Cabinet Secretary. I suppose it’s inevitable that some of my ideas have been criticised for being too mandarin-like, specifically for giving more power to civil servants. That’s the predictable stereotype. But at least now I’ve got the freedom to answer back directly.

In my lecture I mentioned that we should consider looking at open primaries for selecting MPssomething that the columnist and Conservative MP Douglas Carswell  has supported and, on occasion, the current Prime Minister. Douglas is , however, critical of my idea for pre- qualification criteria for MPs.

I am not arguing, as he claims, that pre qualification criteria should be set by civil servants. The current system is, in my view, not giving us enough candidates with diverse experiences, such as former doctors or businessmen, and it is delivering insufficient gender and ethnic diversity. Precisely what criteria we should have for qualifying for a job as an MP should be the subject of further debate. There aren’t many jobs that don’t ask for appropriate qualifications and in a world without open primaries and lots of safe seats we are currently allowing a very small group of people to decide who represents us.

This is why the Cabinet Office line that there is no problem as the qualification process is “democracy” is a rather poor response . Tony Blair gave a rather better answer at today’s 100th meeting of the Mile  End Group, where he backed open primaries and the desirability of MPs having some experience outside politics before entering Parliament. He pointed out the paradox that Ministers are at their most powerful with the most political capital at the start of a new administration when they are least capable. This reinforces the need to think about how MPs can be better prepared for suddenly being put in charge of huge portfolios.

I also made the case for an Office of Taxpayer Responsibility which would analyse the evidence supporting big policy decisions. Sue Cameron in her Telegraph column criticised the idea as it would involve more jobs for “unelected ex mandarins”, like me. That is not my intention, rather I am looking for  a British version of the Australian  Productivity Commission, which has an impressive track record. The difficult balancing act is to improve key policies without stopping innovation.

I’ve also been criticised for attacking handouts like the winter fuel payments. My point is that this allowance alone costs over £2 billion. If it were restricted to those receiving pension credit you would probably save around £1.5 billion. And we could use some of this money to help the elderly groups with greatest needs relative to their assets. So we could cut the deficit, simplify administration ,reduce the reach of big government and increase help to the most needy. What is stopping them?

Sue Cameron also said it was alright for me to say this as I have a big pension, which is true. Actually I am too young to get winter fuel payments but I am eligible for a free Oyster card and prescriptions. Since I believe we need to get rid of these policies we should give the Treasury every incentive to do so. That means claiming them. In my case I have decided to give £1000 a year to one of my favourite charities , Pro Bono Economics, which had a great reception courtesy of Sir Andrew Cahn at Nomura last Thursday.  ( Pro Bono do fantastic work helping charities to demonstrate and improve their effectiveness.)This will more than offset any financial benefit I get and, as I will of course gift aid it, increase the pressure on The Chancellor to act.

Finally I should make clear it I don’t intend to go in for rebuttal too frequently. I’m moving on to take over from Sarah Hogg as Chairman of Frontier Economics,  the leading European economics consultancy,if agreed at today’s AGM.

For those interested in economics and public policy I recommend reading Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape – if ever an economist deserved a Nobel prize he would be high on my list, along with Richard Thaler of nudge fame-and Behavioural Public Policy, edited by Adam Oliver which is being launched on Thursday at the LSE. I don’t agree with all of their conclusions but they provide excellent food for thought.

Policy tsars: flexibility and accountability should be compatible

18th October 2013

Posted on behalf of Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury. Visiting Senior Research Fellows, King’s College London 

On 15 October we launched a short and simple code of practice to secure propriety and effectiveness in the appointment and conduct of ‘tsars’ – the independent policy advisers whom ministers appoint.

Until now tsars have been exempt from anything resembling  the arrangements that govern every other source of expert advice to Ministers, including spads, scientific advisers, consultants, advisory committees, inquiries or consultations. ‘Tsars’ are not even obliged to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life, although they are public appointments.

Neither the Cabinet Office nor the Commissioner for Public Appointments seem willing to take responsibility for addressing this anomaly. To encourage them to do so we have drafted a simple code ourselves, advised by a number of former tsars, civil servants who worked with them, journalists and academics who observe the ways of Whitehall.

The code won’t add cost or tie anyone up in red tape. Instead, it will clarify the minimal rules that should apply and will help to achieve greater effectiveness, transparency and diversity in these appointments.

The Cabinet Office has so far issued a statement, which reveals the shaky ground it has chosen to stand on. It says: “It is entirely appropriate, and in the public interest, for Government to draw on a wide range of advice. Successive administrations have chosen to bring in external expertise in various ways to provide an additional resource to Ministers in considering difficult and complex issues. We think it’s important to maintain a degree of flexibility in such appointments particularly since they may be required to made at short notice”.

Why should flexibility and accountability be incompatible? Flexibility is rightly highly valued and has nothing to fear from being transparent and upholding  good standards of propriety. The code contains nothing that will undermine  principled flexibility.

It proposes more transparent and accountable selection and appointment processes, supervised by a senior responsible official; a clear statement about payment; examining potential or actual conflicts of interest; terms of reference in writing. Also, drawing candidates from a more diverse pool; prompt publicity about the appointment; publication of tsars’ reports and of ministers’ responses formal responses.

The code supports greater effectiveness in the proposal that job and person specifications are carefully thought through, to identify people who do possess the appropriate experience and expertise; also that tsars conduct their work in an open manner wherever possible, and that they prepare a report that shows the evidence on which they base their analysis and advice. Also that departments include informative details of the work of tsars in their Annual Reports, and consolidate the learning about good practice.

We all know that “ministerial idiosyncrasy” can lead to problems, as recent examples of misbehaviour or lax standards of accountability have shown very publicly (James Caan, Emma Harrison, Adrian Beecroft, Mary Portas). Ministers, opposition politicians and civil servants need to learn the lessons from the public’s mistrust of politicians who misbehave, and the public’s deep dismay at policy making that is ill-considered and ill-informed.

The Royal baby, the Rules of Succession, and the Realms

15th July 2013

In anticipation of the birth of the Royal baby, Parliament passed the Succession to the Crown Act in April 2013.  It provides that in future the eldest child will be next in line of succession, whether it is a girl or a boy.  The law will not come into force in time for the Royal birth, but the new baby when born will be next in line.  This Blog post explains the background, and the difficulties involved in changing the rules of succession.

Why have the rules of succession been changed?

Over the last 20 years a series of Private Member’s bills have been introduced into both Houses of Parliament to provide for gender equality in the rules of succession to the Crown.  The Labour government did not resist the principle of the change; but it explained that such a change could be initiated only by the government, because of the need to engage with the 15 other countries of which the Queen is head of state (the Realms).  The government supported the change because of the equalities legislation it had itself introduced.  Another motivating factor was that the other European monarchies were all amending their laws to introduce equal primogeniture.  Sweden was the first to change, in 1980, followed by the Netherlands in 1983, Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991, Denmark in 2009, and Luxembourg in 2011.  Spain has said it will switch to equal primogeniture, but the Spanish constitution has not yet been amended.

Although supportive of the change, the Labour government ultimately failed to act because it was daunted by the size of the task involved in engaging with the Realms; by further complications, such as whether to address the discrimination against Catholics which is also built into the rules of succession; and because there was no immediate reason to do so.

Why now?

The marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 provided a spur to action.  What had been a hypothetical problem became a real possibility.  Having written to them beforehand, in October 2011 David Cameron used the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, to engage with those Commonwealth countries that are also Realms and seek their agreement to change their own laws.  The UK government has said that it will not bring the new law into force until all the Realms have made the change.  When the change is made, it will be backdated to 28 October 2011, the date of the agreement announced in Perth.

Why has changing the law taken so long?  The Realms

Changing the rules of succession for the UK is complicated because the British monarch is head of state of 15 other countries, known as the Realms.  These include large countries such as Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand; and small countries such as St Vincent, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.  (The full list is Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas).

The UK government and Buckingham Palace want any change in the rules of succession to be introduced throughout the Realms (if there were different rules, that could lead in time to different members of the Royal family succeeding in different countries).  Under the Perth agreement all the Realms agreed to make the necessary changes to their own laws.  The nature of the change required varies roughly in proportion to the size of the country: the smallest countries may simply pass a Cabinet resolution, others will legislate in parliament, while the largest countries may need to amend their constitutions.

Australia and Canada face particular difficulties because they are federations, where the consent of the states (in Australia) or the provinces (in Canada) is required for any constitutional amendment.  In Australia a compromise has been agreed that the State Parliaments will request the federal Parliament to change the law.  In Canada a minimalist law passed by the federal Parliament has since been challenged on the ground that changing the office of the Crown properly requires amendment of the Canadian constitution.

Will the Royal baby be next in line?

As the eldest child, the Royal baby will be next in line of succession after Prince William, whether it is a girl or a boy.  It does not matter that the new law has not been brought into force providing for equal primogeniture: so long as there is only one child, it is next in line.  The new law would only be needed if the eldest child is a girl, and a second child is subsequently born which is a boy.  The UK government hopes and expects that all the Realms will have come into line in the next 6-12 months, so the new law should have come into force by the time of the birth of any second child.

What other changes were made to the rules of succession?

Two other changes were made.  The Royal Marriages Act 1772 was repealed, and in future only the first six persons in line to the throne will require the Sovereign’s approval to marry.  Second, marrying a Roman Catholic will no longer disqualify a person from being in the line of succession.  But the prohibitions on the Monarch being a Roman Catholic remain: the Sovereign continues to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and must be in communion with the Church of England.

What does this change tell us about the British constitution?

Being unwritten, the British constitution is very easy to amend. Big changes, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, reforming the House of Lords, or the Human Rights Act can be introduced by simple Act of Parliament.  What this episode shows is that changes to the succession to the Crown are much more difficult, because the change needs to involve not just the UK but the 15 other Realms.

It will have taken two to three years to effect this small change.  The difficulties in the Realms are multiple and varied.  Some saw this as a project of the UK government, and little to do with them.  Some struggled to realise what was required.  Some did not wish to provoke a wider debate about the monarchy.  At the other end of the scale, the two largest countries, Australia and Canada, have constitutions which are notoriously difficult to change.  So if any future change requires a constitutional amendment in either of those countries, the difficulties are further compounded.

It is too early to tell whether this small change has further consequences for the Realms themselves.  They are a widely scattered group of countries, most of whom have little in common.  It is possible that this exercise will have brought them a little closer together; it is also possible that it prompts some to question the link with the monarchy of a country so far away.

Hypocrisy, plotting and misogyny: Explaining the brutal nature of Australian party leadership

Posted on behalf of Mark Bennister

It would appear absurd and self-defeating to remove a sitting Prime Minister less than 3 months before a general election and return a leader who had himself been removed from office only 3 years previously. After all divided parties do not win elections. The Rudd-Gillard soap opera may be a personal battle for supremacy of a dysfunctional Australian Labor party, but its roots lie in systematic and elite driven party politics. The simple answer as to why the Australian Labor party ousted Gillard this week and Rudd in 2010 is that they could and they had previous. Since 1945, there have been several challenges to sitting Prime Ministers in the party room and numerous examples of party leaders being turned out of office in both main parties. Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton was challenged shortly after winning the 1969 election and again in 1971 when a tied vote famously saw him casting the deciding vote against himself. Andrew Peacock failed to unseat Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1981. Under Labor Bob Hawke managed to see off Paul Keating’s first party room challenge in 1991 but after a destabilising 6 month backbench campaign from Keating, lost the premiership. Rudd’s comeback is not so unusual. As Pat Weller observed the vanquished in Australian politics are reluctant to leave the stage. Challengers regroup and fight again as Keating did in 1991, but also leaders can hang around to fight to regain the crown as John Howard did successfully and Peacock unsuccessfully in the Liberal party.

The political culture of party leadership in Australia is ‘brutal’. The end for Gillard’s leadership of the party and country was swift, as Rudd’s first effort had been. A leadership ‘spill’ can be organised a short notice and defenestration is swift and ruthless. The oligarchic nature of party organisation ensures that party leaders need to satisfy, placate, manipulate or cajole their peers to survive in post. Research into leadership selection has shown that leadership selection and ejection, concentrated as it is within the Federal Parliamentary Party marks the ALP and Liberal party out. Furthermore the institutionalisation of the ALP’s factions is not only more entrenched than any other Australian party, but arguably any other social democratic party in the Western world. Australian party politics has managed to resist the trend towards expanding leadership selection beyond the parliamentary party to the membership. The short three year electoral cycle is cited as the most common reason for maintaining the status quo. Both main parties cannot afford to indulge in extended leadership selection and be ‘leaderless’. So the power to select the party leader remains firmly in the hands of the parliamentary caucus with this concentration of elite power exacerbating the role of factions within the ALP. Former party leader Mark Latham called Labor a ‘virtual party controlled by a handful of machine men’.

As Rudd and Gillard found out, once leadership speculation gets going in Canberra a cocktail of party power brokers and political journalists can easily destabilise an incumbent Prime Minister. The devastating critique of Rudd by journalist David Marr in early June 2010 represented a tipping point in Rudd’s fortunes giving rise to the concerted internal party opposition. Gillard, with the opinion polls tanking for some time, suffered from Rudd’s constant sniping and a strain of virulent misogyny peddled from the Opposition and media. Running a minority government, fighting Rudd within the ALP and facing an aggressive centre-right bully in Liberal party leader Tony Abbott as well as the constant media attacks meant she had little chance. Once the speculation is set in motion it becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, as leadership consolidation is an elusive commodity in Australian politics and Federal MPs only see self-preservation.

Unedifying and undemocratic it may be but the parliamentary caucus dynamic and machine politics create an Australian leadership setting in which hypocrisy, deceit and plotting are endemic.

Cross-posted at Political Insight

Mark Bennister is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. His monograph Prime Minister in Power: Political Leadership in Britain and Australia was published in 2012 by Palgrave. He occasionally tweets @MarkBennister

Lords reform: what next? Key incremental reforms following collapse of the Clegg bill

27 June 2013

This morning I gave oral evidence to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry entitled House of Lords reform: what next? This follows the failure of the coalition’s bill last year to introduce elections to the House of Lords. The committee is asking whether – at least until the next major package of reform comes along – other small, sensible improvements could be made to the Lords. It focuses particularly on means to control the chamber’s growing size, and to improve its reputation (for example by ending by-elections for hereditary peers, or evicting peers convicted of serious criminal offences).

In my evidence (which can be viewed in full here) I sought to emphasise three things:

  • First, that both history and international experience shows that large-scale second chamber reform is very difficult to achieve. Throughout the 20th century politicians repeatedly failed to reach agreement on long-term reform, and the only reforms that succeeded were small, piecemeal changes to deal with the most anomalous and problematic aspects. (This history is ably set out in recent books from Chris Ballinger, who also gave evidence today, and from Peter Dorey and Alexandra Kelso.)
  • Second, the most anomalous and problematic aspects of the Lords now (and therefore those that need most urgent reform), are as much about routes into the chamber as routes out. The committee’s inquiry so far has focused a lot on options for retirement or removal of peers, but even if such mechanisms allow the chamber to reduce in size, numbers will soon increase again unless the flow of new members is regulated.
  • Third, while there are key changes that can only be achieved through legislation (such as the private member’s bill currently being pursued by Baroness Hayman in the Lords, and Dan Byles in the Commons) there are also important steps that can be taken without a bill. In particular, the Prime Minister’s unregulated patronage could be dealt with (at least in the short term) through him giving more power to the House of Lords Appointments Commission to regulate the chamber’s size and party balance. He could do this unilaterally.

One of the key problems with the Lords at present is that the number of new peers appointed far outstrips the number permanently departing (which for life peers can only occur when they die). Since 2010 David Cameron has made over 120 new life peers, but fewer than 60 have died. Even if no more appointments are made, the chamber will almost certainly be larger at the end of this parliament than it was at the start. And there is nothing new about this pattern: in the early 18th century the Lords had only 200 members; by the early 19th it had 350, and by the early 20th century it had over 600. In 1999 there were over 1200 members, cut down to around 660 by Labour’s reform to remove most hereditaries. But we are now back up at over 750, or over 800 when those on ‘leave of absence’ and the like are taken into account.

Most agree that the House of Lords is too big, so some mechanism to reduce its size is needed. But this will be ultimately pointless unless something is done to reduce the inward flow as well. There is no point creating vacancies just in order that the Prime Minister can fill them up again. Hence there is also need for agreement on a size cap, and a sustainable formula for future appointments.

A key point is that it is not sustainable to try and balance the House as a whole to the result of the previous general election – as we showed in our 2011 report House Full. This would push numbers ever upwards, as each new prime minister tried to rebalance the appointments of the last. It could also cause arguments about legitimacy, if the Lords was fully reflective of how people had recently voted (albeit while remaining appointed) while the Commons was not. All previous serious proposals for Lords reform have suggested that each new group of entrants – whether through election or appointment – should be proportional to general election votes, rather than seeking this across the chamber as a whole. This would remove the risk of huge fluctuations, and allow the size of the chamber to remain in check.

One option discussed with the committee today was the possibility of imposing a size cap (perhaps of the existing 800), and allowing appointment of ‘one in, one out’, so that new appointments were only made as existing peers die. Or better, a maximum size cap, combined with a lower target (of perhaps 650, the size of the House of Commons), alongside a policy of ‘one in, two out’. As around 20 peers die per year, this would allow the Prime Minister (and House of Lords Appointments Commission) to make around 10 appointments annually. It would take many years to reach the target, but it would be far better than what we have now.

Faster progress would require some reduction in existing numbers. This could probably be achieved through voluntary retirements, but only if the parties work together. The difficulty at the moment is that any party peer taking retirement knows that they will weaken their group, and strengthen its opponents. Hence cross-party agreement is needed about what the present party balance should be, and how many members each group needs to shed. In this respect the present moment is a good one, because the two main parties are almost equally balanced in the Lords. This is as good a starting point as any. If each group therefore shed, say, 10% of members through voluntary retirement, the chamber’s size could drop to the 700 mark.

One difficulty with the current situation, as I pointed out to the committee, is that no body has responsibility for monitoring and reporting on membership in the Lords. Even just publishing an annual report on size and party balance, perhaps with projections of how size is likely to change (based on the age of peers) would help to concentrate minds. The House of Lords Appointments Commission would be a good body to take on this task. Ideally, if the parties can agree a proportionality formula for new appointments (which most obviously would be general election vote shares) and a size cap, the Commission could also then invite nominees annually to fill any vacancies that occur.

All of these changes could potentially be achieved on a nonstatutory basis (though formalising permanent retirement, and the Commission’s role, through a bill would be preferable). But for other elements legislation is essential. This applies to the removal of those convicted of criminal offences (on which everybody agrees), and also the ending of the byelections for hereditary peers. The latter is more controversial, but only with a tiny minority of peers. The great majority accept that the byelections do the chamber reputational damage, and should be ended. Ending the byelections will therefore probably require some determination, and a government bill. What task could be better for a reforming Deputy Prime Minister to take on? If Nick Clegg rose to this challenge, he’d be remembered as an architect of successful reform.

Meg Russell’s book The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived is published next month by Oxford University Press. See here for details.


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